"The government wants to monopolize people`s attachment to religion"

On May 15, the US State Department published the report "International Religious Freedom in 2022". In the report, Azerbaijan, along with Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan, is included in a Special Control List of Gross Violations of religious Freedoms in accordance with the Law "On Freedom of Religion".

The part of the report concerning Azerbaijan, said that the conditions of religious freedom in this country as a whole were assessed negatively. It is also noted that the government's control over all religious activities has been strengthened in Azerbaijan. The document states that Azerbaijani law requires state registration of all religious communities, government permission for the religious literature and other materials used.

The report says that President Ilham Aliyev signed some amendments to the law on religion in March. According to one of these amendments, the appointment of imams was removed from the nominally independent Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus and transferred to the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, and thus the government's interference in religious affairs was formalized.

Independent journalist Arzu Abdullah Gulzaman answers the questions of ASTNA concerning the situation with religious freedoms in Azerbaijan.

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Question: The report of the US State Department "International Freedom of Religion in 2022" states that, in accordance with the law "On Freedom of Religion", Azerbaijan is included in a Special Control List of Gross Violations of religious freedoms. Are religious freedoms violated in Azerbaijan?

Answer: In Azerbaijan, not only religious freedoms, but also all freedoms, all human rights are violated in the most gross way. Today, when a believer dies, his family is instructed not to voice any religious slogans during the funeral and memorial meal. They don't even let people part with their lives the way they want. That is, Azerbaijan interferes in the affairs of not only the living, but also the dead. People are not allowed to perform religious rites.

In many countries, the Ashura ceremony is massively held on the streets and the police support the safety of participants. In Azerbaijan, the opposite is true. With the help of the police, the government disperses the Ashura ceremony. Citizens are prohibited from holding this or any other religious ceremony even at home. If they interfere with the way we behave at home, then it's not worth talking about freedoms at all.

The citizen was taken to the police station only because there was an inscription on his clothes: "Ya Hussein!". Isn't this a strangulation of freedom of expression, a violation of humanity? The fact that those who sold shirts with religious slogans written on them in their stores were fined large sums is actually an illustration of the dictatorship.

Question: But sometimes radicalism is promoted under the guise of religion. Or other centers of foreign influence, including Iran, are being propagandized. If this is the case, how should the state deal with it?

Answer: They are trying to breed religious radicalism in Azerbaijan. For example, over the past 5 months, mass arrests of Shiite believers on drug charges have begun. Trolls on social networks, inspired by the massive defamation campaign launched by the government against citizens, insult Shiism and Shiites. As you know, social networks are under the strongest control. Any opposition status against the government becomes the reason for a reservation in the distribution of drugs and arrests.

Even in the Ganja case, hundreds of young people were sentenced to years in prison and subjected to terrible torture precisely because of their social media statuses. Today, in general, there is no fight against those who offend Shiites. Consequently, there are forces in the country that want religious confrontation.

About Iran's propaganda and how the state prevents it. Ideological interference of any country in Azerbaijan is impossible. Because we are an easily controlled people. We quickly forget our past, we are not interested in the present at all. As for the Iranian propaganda, this approach is also a meme, or rather a bugbear created by pro-government media and TV channels. Please note that Shiite believers who have been subjected to a drug distribution clause are presented by government media and structures as "Iranian spies". That is, this meme forms the government itself in the country.

I would also like to note that an Azerbaijani citizen will not be able to import a single gram of drugs from Iran or any other country into Azerbaijan. It's impossible. Everyone who has left the country and returned to it at least once in their life knows this for sure. The detention of 15 tons of drugs transported from Azerbaijan at the Georgian border proved once again that neither believers nor any ordinary citizen are engaged in drug trafficking in Azerbaijan. In extreme cases, someone can be a courier. But the development of drug trafficking does not depend on couriers, but on the barons at the head.

As for Iranian propaganda, when the president said some time ago: "We are two fraternal states with Iran, and Khudaferin is a bridge of brotherhood," the people echoed this. Subsequently, when the president began to express the complete opposite of this idea, the people began to echo it again. That is, in Azerbaijan, the people are used to being guided by the opinion of the president. Let's not deceive ourselves.

Question: In Azerbaijan, at one time, there were persecutions and arrests of members of the Islamic Party, and then Wahhabis, Baha'is. Later, the Nardaran events took place. Arrests were carried out under the name "Hunting for nursists". And today we witness that during periods of aggravation of relations with Iran, members of the Muslim Unity movement and other Shiite believers are arrested under the pretext of an "Iranian spy network". This means that believers are constantly monitored in Azerbaijan. What does the Government fear by exercising this control? What is it trying to achieve? What can this lead to?

Answer: Firstly, the persecution of members of the Islamic Party continues to this day. Acting party chairmen are always arrested. Movsum Samedov, the former chairman, a political prisoner sentenced to 12 years in prison for a 12-minute speech, had no time to be released, when the representative of the clergy, Ilham Aliyev (namesake of the head of state), who replaced him, was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison. At the same time, the Muslim Unity Movement has been persecuted and arrested since its inception. In addition, members of this movement are called one by one to the management and threatened with arrest if they do not move away from the Movement. And this process does not stop.

The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan and the Muslim Unity Movement have united people of the Shiite (Jafari – Ed.) Madhhab (School of Islamic Law (Fiqh) – Ed.). Violence and persecution against these people can and do link to Iran. Then the question arises, what was the reason for the burning of Wahhabis' beards with lighters in state institutions that once took place?

You mentioned Baha'is and others. In fact, in Azerbaijan, persecution, government pressure was directed not only against believers, against everyone. Today, the Azerbaijani government oppresses all people capable of independent thinking.

If we consider the problem as a whole, then by the number we can talk about more aggressive pressure on believers. There is one reason for this. Believers love Allah more than all padishahs. In other words, since no believer attaches a king or a president to Allah, throughout history, they have incurred the wrath of pharaohs and dictators.

The result interests me, no less than you. What will be the end of what is happening in our country for years against religion, citizens and humanity in general? You probably remember the case of Said Dadashbeyli. The Ministry of Internal Affairs destroyed the lives of our young people who received higher education, gifted, most of whom were children from wealthy families. They were sentenced to long prison terms, associated with all religious sects. One of the victims even said that in front of their eyes, the General of the Ministry of Internal Affairs beat Emin Mammadov to death.

Or take the prisoners of Eurovision, in connection with their case, they have no evidence, there is only torture and punishment.

After the Terter tragedy, I froze the question - how will all these injustices end?

In fact, the Terter tragedy, during which our servicemen who defended their homeland at the cost of their own lives and their family members were subjected to the most incredible tortures, became a test of the tolerance of Azerbaijani citizens.

Question: The report also says that President Ilham Aliyev signed some amendments to the Law "On Religion" in March. According to one of these amendments, the appointment of imams was removed from the nominally independent Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus and transferred to the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations. Thus, the government's interference in religious affairs was formalized. For what purpose is this done?

Answer: Until now, the President has said that religion is separate from the state. But in fact this is not the case. Because at the same time religion is not separated from politics. Religion has always been a means of winning, winning political games. Azerbaijani people are more connected with religion. In fact, the last steps taken with regard to religion is the government's desire to also take advantage of this attachment. More precisely, to monopolize this religious attachment. It's lust to drive people into the desired shape. In history, religious prohibitions have never produced the desired results anywhere. It was the opposite. As proof of this, we can point to the uprising of Imam Hussein. After all, there is such an example in history as the Karbala School. For a believer, the path to Allah is a path that no one has yet been able to obstruct. Remember those who have been burned at the stake for thousands of years. How did it all end? Naturally, the Catholics failed to erase the faith they burned from the face of the earth. It's impossible. History proves that pressure on religion always leads to the opposite result. Today there may be silence and it may last 10 years. But since he (i.e. the people - Ed.) is religious, the destruction of the lives of so many religious people in a small country will not lead to the desired goal.

Question: What can be done to ensure that freedom of religion is protected in Azerbaijan and that at the same time no foreign influence, radical forces acting on behalf of religion, can abuse this freedom of religion and cause harm to the country?

Answer: In order to protect religious freedoms, the persecution of believers must be stopped. In Germany, Japan, America, the Netherlands, Ashura is celebrated en masse on the streets. But in these countries there has not been a single case of any radical forces causing damage to the country. Because the more people are oppressed, the more they become radicalized. But freedom saves from radicalism. Let people live the way they want.

When the beards of Wahhabis are set on fire with a lighter, Shiites are accused of drugs, they are threatened with persecution of their families, they are forced to sign a drug charge, then hatred begins to grow in the relatives of these people. Such an attitude is actually extremely dangerous for society.

In Azerbaijan, not only believers, but also atheists are not allowed to go out and hold actions, ceremonies. After all, there is no human freedom in Azerbaijan.

As for causing harm to the country, this issue depends on how the state is governed. Pay attention to the last Pardon Order. The President pardoned officials who had plundered millions from the state budget,

who were responsible for protecting the security of the state, who admitted at court sessions that they abused their position and threatened citizens and took huge sums of money from them. On what basis?

In my opinion, there is no greater threat to the future of the state. It does not matter whether an ordinary citizen is religious, atheist or LGBT representative.

They are not as dangerous to the state as the pardoned ones mentioned above. The president's pardon of those responsible for the security of the state, who plundered state property, turned the lives of citizens into hell is not the best example for the residents of the country. This shows once again that today in Azerbaijan, the life of every person, and I would even say every living being, is in danger. As long as we live in Azerbaijan, we are not safe.

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